“Whitewashing” in Mass Media: Exploring Colorism and the Damaging Effects of Beauty Hierarchies

Mass media is incredibly pervasive in our society.  Constant and readily available, it consumes our everyday lives.  Arguably the most powerful source of information in this day-in-age, the media bombards our society with notions and images of good versus bad, desirable versus undesirable, acceptable versus unacceptable.  These types of discourses are particularly evident and distressing in modern media’s deep-seated racial bias in its physical portrayal of African American women.  Black women are unique in that they are asked not just to strive to attain mainstream standards of beauty, but to have such standards completely override their natural being (Thompson 854).  More specifically, the obvious Eurocentric ideals in the media render only African American women who have been constructed to fit these ideals as beautiful, causing an entire group of African American women to be deemed invisible, unacceptable, and unworthy of the media’s attention.

The purpose of my multimedia project is to explore the pervasiveness of the Eurocentric standard of beauty in mass media (in films, online, etc), and the subsequent effects it has in the formation of personal identity and on the psyche of African American women in particular. I want to examine how African American women respond to media images that display thin, white, straight-haired women as the pinnacle of beauty and observe the ways in which such images can be damaging to both identity and self-esteem.  Additionally, I will focus heavily on the “whitewashing”/“Caucasianizing” of African/African American women in the media.

Beyonce Loreal

Gabourey Elle

With this, I also want to delve into the history behind this issue, looking at how it roots back to slavery and considering how this systematic oppression has caused not only interracial strife, but also intra-racial tensions within the Black community.  I will also consider the role Colorism – the discrimination based on skin tone within a racial group – has played in the broader scope of Black politics, and extend to explore how modern media perpetuates this issue. Therefore, I want to research the various hierarchies of beauty that exist amongst even within the black community based on how light one’s skin is.  I plan to use present-day media examples, as well as sociological experiments (such as the Clark Doll Test) to make the connection between the media and various African American women’s perceptions of body esteem.   

In terms of research, most of my sources will consist of scholarly articles regarding the issue of Colorism and its history, specific effects of popular media on self-esteem, and various sociological studies that have previously been conducted on this issue. Namely, scholars like Cheryl Thompson (“Black Women, Beauty, And Hair As A Matter Of Being”), Dia Sekayi (“Aesthetic Resistance to Commercial Influences: The Impact of the Eurocentric Beauty Standard on Black College Women.”), and Cynthia Frisby (“Does Race Matter? Effects of Idealized Images on African American Women’s Perceptions of Body Esteem”) amongst others. I also want to utilize films like Dark Girls and A Girl Like Me, which present very relevant research on this issue. I will also present research on case studies I conduct from various magazines, music videos, films, and other forms of media that exhibit my topic.  Additionally, I plan to examine sources that challenge these universal standards of beauty, aimed at empowering African American women in order to complicate my findings (with online sources such as Beauty Redefined).  I also hope to conduct ethnographic interviews with African American women on Harvard’s campus to get their perspective on the issue, and relate this to the current studies that have been conducted on this topic. These interviews will likely remain anonymous and will be completely voluntary (and participants will be well informed of my project beforehand); therefore, I do not expect any problems of ethics or etiquette to be associated with my project.

As a multimedia component, I hope to create a video reel filled with various images and clips from popular media that will serve to highlight the stark, troubling reality of mass media’s whitewashing/representations of African American women. Providing these visual sources will be critical in really showcasing the harsh realities of this troubling, deep-rooted issue.


Works Cited

Beauty Redefined Blog. Web. 18 Oct 2014.

“Beyonce Loreal.” 2014. JPG file.

Dark Girls.  Dirs. Bill Duke, D. Channsin Berry.  Urban Winter Entertainment and    Duke Media Production, 2011.

“Gabourey Elle.” 2014. JPG file.

Thompson, Cheryl. “Black Women, Beauty, And Hair As A Matter Of Being.” Women’s Studies 38.8 (2009): 831-856. Women’s Studies International. Web. 11 Apr. 2012.


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